What is a “Teacher Leader?”
What does it take to be a “teacher leader?” What can you do to develop a voice that advocates for the children and families in your care? Every teacher that I’ve ever wanted for my daughter Sophia has articulated a desire to be a teacher leader. In fact, having Sophia in a classroom with an educator who strives to learn about her and advocates for her needs both inside and outside of the classroom not only continues to be my desire as she enters 8th grade, but was at the forefront of my mind for other people’s children during my time as a state administrator.
To be an architect of programs that serve others by providing the very best experiences takes time and cooperation, as the definition of servant leadership indicates. Servant leadership is “a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.”
Let’s face it—not everything in your classroom, program, center, or district is exactly the way you want it. There’s nothing wrong with teaching in a context that isn’t exactly the way you’d design it. However, if you’re motivated to do what’s best for the children and families in your care, then you need to address problems that affect your quality of care and children’s learning. It only becomes a bigger problem when you don’t work to change the context.
Gone are the days when you could close your classroom door and teach without worrying about events outside (if such days ever existed). But now teachers leave the field at alarming rates, in large part because of contextual factors they feel they cannot change. While change will not occur overnight or even in a year, there are essential steps that can bring about the change you want to see over time and help to teach others why the strategies you utilize are precisely the ones to employ.
3 Ways to Influence Change
When thinking about teacher leadership, I often go back to my years as a kindergarten teacher. Although I haven’t taught kindergarten in many years, I still remember what it felt like to not have the luxury of using the bathroom whenever I wanted, as well as the tremendous responsibility of having 20+ five-year-olds looking into my eyes during the countless hours I sat with them on the carpet. Despite the weight of this great work, there were three clear steps I took to develop my leadership voice and be an advocate for the children in my care.
- I stood on the shoulders of giants in our field. Without question, my first “giants” were Sam Meisels, who taught me about appropriate assessment; Sue Bredekamp, who gave me my first lessons on developmentally appropriate practices; Dorothy Strickland, who taught me that early childhood curriculum should be steeped in deep and rich content; and Ellen Frede, who guided me as I put these great ideas into practice. Although I didn’t get to meet these giants of our field until later in life, I knew them before I knew them by reading everything they wrote, which is a crucial step to developing your voice.
- I aligned myself with professional organizations that shared my perspective as a strategy to find like-minded people and continually develop my own perspective. Without question, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Association for Supervisors and Curriculum Developers (ASCD) were my go-to organizations during my teaching years. They armed me with resources to defend the way I taught and to help me teach others who needed teaching on such practices.
- I developed my “why,” which needed to go beyond simply loving children. Yes, it’s important to love children as a teacher. However, there are plenty of people who love children but who shouldn’t be teachers. For me, my “why” had to do with the time I spent as an AmeriCorps member in Trenton, NJ. During my time in AmeriCorps, I learned that great things happen in service to others. As I’ve written about previously, there’ s evidence that students in historically underserved areas consistently receive less challenging instruction and schoolwork than their white and more affluent classmates do. My “why” was that I wanted to be part of the solution to this problem.
The beginning of the school year is always an exciting time that includes letters to families, invitations for classroom visits, and arranging the classroom to be the best place possible for the children and families you serve. As you do all of this, don’t forget about the voice you’ll need to advocate for your students both inside and outside of your classroom. Your giants will be different. Your organizations might be more expansive. Your “why” will surely be personal to you.
I’d love to meet your giants, read about your organizations, and consider your “why.” Please feel free to share with me by commenting below.
Continue to lead the way by serving others!